The San Diego Public Library – Historical Summary

On September 30, 2013, the new building for the San Diego Central Library opened to the public. The nine foot structure cost $184.9 million, but was completed free of debt. Deborah Barrow, the San Diego Public Library (SDPL) director, credited this accomplishment to the supportive community and city council. In addition to a new building, the SDPL also increased its services, and equipped its staff with new technological tools such as self-checkout machines, free mobile app, and multimedia collaborative tables. These improvements have enabled the SDPL in fulfilling its mission: “To inspire lifelong learning through connections to knowledge and each other.”

The mission of the modern library echoes the ideals promoted during the Progressive Movement of the 1880’s to 1920’s. Progressives strongly supported the free public library, and in doing so they also provided communities with educational and cultural activities. Progressives developed services such as reference services, children’s services, and adult education services in order to reach the masses and promote social improvement (Jeager, et. all, 2013, p. 16). The history of the library in San Diego particularly demonstrates how influential Progressives were in shaping the purpose of the modern library.

The Progressive Movement lasted from the 1890’s to 1920’s and was sparked by a transformation in the U.S. from an agricultural nation to urban industrial society. This shift created a society characterized by a disparity between the urban poor and business owners made wealthy by industrialization. Progressives recognized the problems caused by this situation and called for a move away from a society that promoted personal gain, to a culture that promoted moral good (Starr K., 1985, p. 199). A push for public education, a higher standard of living, and improved civic planning was initiated. Progressive ideals were manifested through various ways, including the creation of the public library.

In San Diego, the Progressive Movement was transformational. San Diegans such as Alonzo Horton, and Lydia Knapp Horton donated their time and money to effect change (Starr K., 1985, p. 232).  Alonzo Horton and Lydia Knapp Horton were major contributors to the San Diego Public Library in the Progressive Era. Alonzo Horton moved from San Francisco to San Diego in 1867. At the time, San Diego was little more than a frontier village in Southern California boasting a population of just 2,300 people (San Diego History Center, 2013). He initiated the creation of the Horton Library Association (HLA) in 1870 hoping a library would attract new residents. As a business venture, the library was a failure. With only sixty-four members, the Association was unable to raise enough funds to establish a collection of books (Breed, 1983, p. 9). As a result, the HLA quickly disintegrated, but the vision for a library in San Diego was not forgotten.

Shortly after the HLA disbanded, the citizens of San Diego rallied and formed the San Diego Library Association (SDLA). Though more successful than its predecessor, the SDLA made little impact in the community. A second group was formed in 1872, when the San Diego Free Reading Room Association (FRRA) was organized. A reading room was opened downtown, and in 1873 Horton donated about 600 books from his private collection to the FRRA.

Lydia Knapp Horton 1843-1926 (from the San Diego History Center Collection)
Lydia Knapp Horton 1843-1926 (from the San Diego History Center Collection)

In 1890, Alonzo Horton and Lydia Knapp Horton married. Lydia Horton shared in his vision to make San Diego a noteworthy city, and while her husband was an important influence on San Diego business, Mrs. Horton’s activism impacted social progress. She was extremely involved in the development of the San Diego library, and also promoted literacy through other organizations such as the women’s Wednesday Club. She was an advocate for the San Diego library, and famously appealed to Andrew Carnegie in 1897 for a grant to build a new library (MacPhail, 1969, p. 127).

Providing a location for the library was a continuous struggle until a permanent building was constructed in 1902. The association moved locations four times between 1882 and 1898 (McGrew, 1922, p. 295). The instability caused by relocating was quickly recognized by the Board of Library Trustees. In 1897, the board’s secretary, Lydia Horton, initiated contact with Andrew Carnegie. She requested photos of the library building he had funded so that they could be displayed in San Diego. In response, he not only sent the pictures, but also expressed interest in the San Diego library. Horton recognized the opportunity to gain Carnegie’s support, and in 1899, she wrote to Carnegie officially requesting funds to construct a library building (p. 296).

Carnegie responded to Lydia Horton’s letter a month later writing:

“Madam: If the city were to pledge itself to maintain a free public library from the taxes, say to the extent of the amount you name, of between five and six thousand dollars a year, and provide a site, I shall be glad to give you $50,000, to erect a suitable library building”

(MacPhail, 1969, p. 127). The leaders of the library then set out to find a location site and to design the new building.

Qualifying for a grant from Carnegie was quite an accomplishment. Letters from communities requesting a Carnegie library poured in from all over the country.  Carnegie and his secretary in charge of benefactions, James Bertram, processed requests by creating a Schedule of Questions for each group to complete. The questions pertained to the community’s population size, if a library already existed, if a library could be supported by taxes, and if a building site was available (Bobinski, 1969, p. 1365). These questions were meant to determine if a library could survive after receiving a Carnegie building. Since Carnegie’s involvement with the library was strictly financial, it was necessary for the community to be able to manage the building process and maintenance of the library. Applications from communities that could not sustain a library through taxation were turned down. Many organizations that wrote to Carnegie did not meet the necessary requirements, and were therefore refused funding. Seldom did a requesting community receive an immediate response. San Diego was unique in that its grant was approved relatively quickly, and it was also the first library west of the Mississippi to receive funding from Carnegie (Starr R. , 1989, p. 232).

After San Diego was presented with Carnegie’s donation, library organizers began to discuss where the new public library building should be located. A location in the downtown district was agreed upon, and building plans moved forward. The building design proved to be challenge for library organizers. Building policies from Carnegie and Bertram pressured grant recipients to hire architects experienced in library design, and thus, limited the number of acceptable designers. San Diego held a national competition for library building designs, and in 1900, the New York firm of Ackerman and Ross was selected for the building (Van Slyck, 1998, p. 56). The exterior of the building was embellished by the work of local San Diegan and accomplished horticulturist, Kate Sessions

Kate Sessions 1857-1940 (From the San Diego History Center collection)
Kate Sessions 1857-1940 (From the San Diego History Center collection)

. She was hired to design the landscape, and oversaw the planting of nearly a hundred plants. Sessions provided valuable advice to the Library Board and Chamber of Commerce on the importance of landscaping, and suggested that the “Plaza should remain plain, simple and open” (MacPhail, 1976, p. 64).

The library moved into the new building in 1902, and opened on April 23, 1902. The building featured a children’s room, open shelves, a lecture room, and an art gallery. These amenities caused it to be seen as a cultural center. It served a community of 17,000 people, and had a book collection of 15,000 volumes. As the library’s popularity grew, it became necessary for the SDPL to expand its service beyond the downtown location. By 1903, nine traveling libraries were added, in an attempt to reach a larger demographic (Breed, 1983, p. 35).

The 20th century marked a period of rapid growth for the SDPL which resulted in a new set of goals for the library. A higher standard of accessibility and good service became expected as librarians and staff added new resources. In 1916, the head librarian summarized the goals of the SDPL when she instructed her staff to “Go to the people with your service –give them greater privileges—make the Library as free from red tape as possible” (Breed, 1983, p. 48). These words capture the vision of the free public library to be a service to all.

The development of the SDPL demonstrated an early commitment to service, public good, literacy, and aesthetics. In designing the Carnegie building, San Diego Progressives intentionally shaped the atmosphere of the library to include both stylized architecture, and outdoor landscaping. The community empowered librarians in expanding the SDPL’s services, by supporting the creation of children’s sections, reference resources, adult education, and tutoring programs. Many of these services promoted literacy, and social improvement (Van Slyck, 1998, p. 175). The Progressives in San Diego believed: “The public library should be an intellectual center in which every member of the community feels a sense of personal ownership and a right to demand every help that can be supplied, for the furtherance of his own personal intellectual work and general development” (San Diego Public Library, 1904). They left behind an ethical legacy that contributed to the SDPL’s long-term success.


Blumenstein, L. (2013, September 6). New San Diego Library To Open Debt Free. Retrieved from Library Journal:

Bobinski, G. S. (1969). Carnegie libraries; their history and impact on American public library development. Chicago: American Library Association.

Breed, C. E. (1983). Turning the pages: San Diego Public Library history 1882 – 1982. San Diego: Friends of the San Diego Public Library.

Jeager, P., Gorham, U., Lindsay, S., & Bertot, J. C. (2013). Libraries, policy, and politics in a democracy: four historical epochs. The Library Quarterly, 83(2), 166-181.

MacPhail, E. C. (1969). The story of New San Diego and of its founder Alonzo E. Horton. San Diego: Pioneer Printers.

MacPhail, E. C. (1976). Kate Sessions: pioneer horticulturist. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society.

McGrew, C. A. (1922). City of San Diego and San Diego County: the birthplace of California (Vol. Vol. I & II). New York: American Historical Society.

Rubin, R. E. (2010). Foundations of Library and Information Science. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

San Diego History Center. (2013, November 21). San Diego city and county population from U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from

San Diego Public Library. (1904, May 12). Minutes., Vol 2, p. 263. San Diego.

San Diego Public Library. (2012, March 2). Goals and objectives. Retrieved from

Starr, K. (1985). Inventing the dream: California through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press.

Starr, R. (1989). Philanthropy in San Diego, 1900-1929. Southern California Quarterly, 71, 227-273.

Van Slyck, A. A. (1998). Free to all: Carnegie libraries & American culture, 1890 – 1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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